Cultural Authenticity: Moroccan Cuisine and New Old Buildings

My position on the beauty of cultural globalization hinges on a difficult word: authenticity. Some critics think any kind of synthetic culture is not authentic, not real. I have two interesting real world examples from my recent travel which illustrate the complexity of this part of the argument.

This is a restaurant in Dublin, Ireland which boasts "authentic Moroccan cuisine." What exactly makes it authentic? Do they have Moroccan chefs? Does it taste as good as it does in Morocco? Since I’m not familiar with Moroccan cuisine, I will use another food I’m more familiar with: sushi. I’m fairly confident I could find sushi at the best sushi bar in San Francisco that’s as good as most sushi in Japan. Is my sushi less authentic? Another example. At Denver Airport a few months ago I bought Chinese food served by Arab immigrants staffing the restaurant. The Chinese food was as good as your basic Chinese food you’d find in any average restaurant. Does the fact that the food was served in an airport by non-Chinese workers mean anything?

In Dresden, Germany they have spent hundreds of millions of euros rebuilding all that was destroyed in WWII. They are rebuilding in the "old" style of the early 20th century. So the building may be built in 2006, but to someone who wasn’t aware of the reconstruction effort, you could easily guess from its architecture that it was built in 1920. Is this "new oldness" as authentic as the building in the next own over that actually was built in 1920 but looks identical to the Dresden building?

6 comments on “Cultural Authenticity: Moroccan Cuisine and New Old Buildings
  • Hi Ben,
    I’m Erica from Italy.. I found your blog while doing some cultural research on google, I just wanted to tell you that I really like it..
    Your posts are all very interesting, I’ll keep on visiting you!
    Take Care,
    Erica from Milan

  • Ben,
    I think authenticity is in the eye of the critic. When dealing with buildings, every one is representative of a cause and solution to a current (or when it was built) problem. It will always attempt to fulfill the needs of those who inhabit it today and tomorrow. But when speaking of style, any remake in the vein of a largely imagined past will always be a fake. If it does not reflect what is happening today, and what materials we have available, it is seen as kitschy and imitating. Thanks for the thoughts.

  • To me, restaurants sell an experience, not just food. So no matter how good your sushi or Chinese food is, it’s not “authentic” in the true sense of the word. You have to go a country to fully enjoy the food in its context.

    That said, should there exist “authentic” categories for modified cuisines which adapt to the environment around them? Example: San Francisco’s Chinatown where most Chinese restaurants offer American Chinese food (the product of the Chinese American identity?)

    How authentic are the restaurants that go all out and call their food “fusion”?

  • When I first visited Cholula, Mexico, where there’s a church for every day of the week, built by the Spanish on top of the Toltec shrines for each day of the week, the largest pyramid had been left largely alone; the last time I visited, it had been largely reconstructed. Same thing happened at Uxmal, Mexico. At Mesa Verde National Park, where I was a seasonal ranger, they use a special method to let you know which walls have been reconstructed–larger chinking stones. At Cliff Palace, 3/4ths of one of the towers was reconstructed, and they even painted 3/4ths of a mural. I live in Colorado, and as a reference librarian, I’ve had the question from 5th graders in other states about “What is Colorado’s state food?” Colorado’s state food? Why would there be a Colorado state food? Even the Utes were relative newcomers to the state. Do the visitors to Mesa Verde have a “fake” experience because the ruins have not only been cleaned up, but they’ve been rebuilt and stabilized? Somewhat–maybe–I don’t know. The cliffs are the same, the cliff swallows, the color of the sandstone, and the poison ivy growing by the springs. That ladder in Step House–that’s just confusing–no the Anasazi did not use ladders. That was built by the excavators in the 1920s (?), but now it’s historic so we have to preserve it too.

  • Oh, about the ladder at Step House–the Anasazi *did* use ladders–they didn’t use steps made from sawmilled lumber and nails. This post probably doesn’t clarify anything at all.

  • I think this is a very interesting question and one I’ve been thinking about recently as well. Especially, does the concept of authenticity require a culture to be static? I am currently teaching English in Japan. The first time I visited Kyoto I was in shock. I expected to see picturesque gardens and secluded wooden shrines and temples. But, everywhere I turned I saw uniform gray concrete buildings that looked like warehouses, not authentically Japanese at all. But if I can’t find authentic Japanese culture in Japan, does it exist? I thought of the same thing when I was in Thailand seeing monks talking on cellphones and hill tribe villagers walking around in Levis. In the age of globalization, rapid technological change, and increased interaction between cultures I think we have to refine our definition of what is authentic.

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